02 September 2020

Who is Guarding Your Threshold?

Years ago I explained that the creative process requires two parts of your brain: the Miner (who digs up ideas), and the Jeweler (who turns them into something pretty, or at least sellable).

For the last few days the Miner has been screaming in my ear.  I'm not sure what he wants but it does not pay to ignore him.  (He gets lazy if he thinks you are ungrateful.)  So I am going to use this space to  talk about the subject that seems to be fascinating him at the moment. 

It began when I had the privilege of speaking to Malice in Memphis, a writer's group in New Hampshire.   (Okay, it's in Tennessee.)  You can watch it on Facebook The subject was short stories.

Our own Michael Bracken was kind enough to attend and during the Q&A he mentioned Blake Snyder's Save the Cat Beat Sheet, a template for plot structure.  I had never heard of it but I have since looked it up and it is quite interesting.  I recommend it.

Not surprisingly, Snyder's template reminded me of another plot outline with which I am more familiar: the Hero's Journey, as explained in Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces, which I also recommend.  (And when you finish it you will want to buy The Hero With an African Face, by my friend Clyde Ford.  It fills in a part of the canvas Campbell left mostly blank.)

Campbell uses mythology from around the world to synthesize the key elements of the hero myth.  It is important to realize that virtually no story will have all the elements; the variations are part of what makes them so interesting.  All the stations of the journey are worth pondering, especially for a writer, but  the part that the Miner has been obsessing over since Saturday is the Threshold Guardian.

So what the hell is that, you may ask.

Well, it's like this.  The hero (and it could be male or female.  I'm going to go male throughout because most of the examples that popped into my head are boys) is summoned to adventure (by a client knocking on the office door, scavengers selling droids, a white rabbit with a pocket watch...).  But in some stories before his journey can truly begin there is an obstacle in his way, guarding the threshold he must pass.  This may be a person, an object, or even an emotion (like self-doubt) but until he defeats it, the hero is stuck.

To get metaphysical, the threshold guardian is the champion of the unchanging world which the hero is destined to change.  The guardian's mission is to stop the quest before it even begins.

In Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, think of Vernon Dursley trying to keep Harry from reading an invitation to attend Hogwart's School of Magic (what Campbell would label the Call to Adventure).


My novel Greenfellas is about a Mafiosi who decides he needs to save the environment.  The first obstacle he faces is his boss, the capo dei capi,  who forbids his getting involved in such a ca
use.  "We aren't the good guys," he insists.  Before my hero can proceed he needs to find a way to work around the head man.

By the way, if the hero defeats the Guardian he may turn into a strong ally.  Think of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride.

I am currently working on a short story which begins with my hero (literally) stumbling over a corpse.  I think the threshold guardians are the police detectives who don't want him screwing up their investigation.  But maybe things will turn out differently.

Is that story what the Miner is trying to talk to me about?  Dunno.  Sometimes he provides the answers years before I find the question.  But the important thing is to keep listening.



  1. I must admit that I've never read Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder's book on screenwriting, but I stumbled upon his beat sheet (linked to in the blog post), and it has helped me tremendously with plotting stories. I had never understood all the plotting articles I read, which were filled with graphs labeled things like "rising action," and over the years had cobbled together my own way of plotting. Snyder's beat sheet was similar to what I was already doing in that it doesn't tell you how to plot, per se, but it explains what needs to happen in what order to create a compelling stories, and it appears to work as well for short stories (and, probably, novels) as it does for screenplays, and it seems to work for any genre.

    Shortly after discovering the beat sheet, I wrote a romance that hit every beat and sold it to a women's magazine. Then I wrote a bit of crime fiction that hit every beat and sold it to AHMM.

    Since then I've written (and sold) more stories that were structured following the beat sheet, and some that weren't. One thing I do now, though: When I get stuck with a story I was pantsing, I compare what I've written to the beat sheet, which helps me figure out where my story structure/plot may have gone off the rails.

    One downside to knowing the beat sheet: Most modern movies become highly predictable.

    1. Michael, I've been using the Beat Sheet for a novel. Would love to see how you did one for a short story. Would it be possible to share?

  2. I like the miner-jeweler analogy, Rob. It's an interesting way of looking at it.

  3. Something similar happened to me in doing professional writing (in economics)...I'd have an idea, and alarm bells would go off...I had to get past the alarms (the first of which was "has somebody already done this?") before I could get anything done.

  4. Rob, I once read in a Parabola Magazine issue that was entirely about "Guardians" - and another aspect one article pointed out is that sometimes the Guardian on the Threshold is simply lost... Something to think about.
    Michael, the downside to knowing the beat sheet is that almost everything modern becomes highly predictable.

  5. I've tried to use the beat sheet methodology in writing my current WIP. It works well in giving one a path if you're a plotter or to revise against if you're a panster. Jessica Brody has written a book Save the Cat Writes A Novel where she goes into depth about using the method for books.

  6. I enjoyed this, Rob. Good information.

    Like Michael, I've not read Save the Cat, though I should've--I bought it several years ago and I have it here in my home office someplace--but I have read (and enjoyed) Robert McKee's book Story, which also deals with screenwriting, and I often used quotes from it in my fiction-writing classes. I've also read The Writer's Journey, which is Christopher Vogler's updated version of "the hero's journey" and mythic structure in storytelling.

    To me, a knowledge of that kind of traditional story structure is helpful just to keep in the back of your mind, so it can be used (again, as Michael said) if you happen to run into plotting difficulties and need to find a way to make the story progress as it should.

  7. Thanks for the comments, all. I gues i have to red Save The Cat.

    Eve, I use to subscribe to Parabola but never saw that issue. Fascinating magazine.


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